Sunday, 28 May 2017

Bank Holiday in London

I often read blogs and get envy about how great everyone else's birding experience seems to be compared to mine. Superlative phrases such as 'boom', 'the best day ever', 'with such a good group of people' etc seem to be the norm with some. And so, welcome to my world that is London birding - where the phrases 'it's all about context' and 'I really need to see a Casp' are the most often used. Surely others must have the same experiences... so instead of the 4 Red-footed Falcons, Alpine Swift and Red-rumped Swallow dished up at Spurn today, my two days of birding in London have comprised a couple of Grasshopper Warblers and a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls.
Grasshopper Warbler Rainham Marshes, London 27th May 2017
adult Yellow-legged Gull Thamesmead, London 27th May 2017
Guess it really is all about context. May need to get out of the big city at some point soon!

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Big city struggle this spring

The joys of winter have quickly receded. Early spring and its promise of things to come has faded into the almost distant past. It now feels like summer is here. My sojourns to Thames Barrier Park, Crossness and Thamesmead the weekend just gone and the one before have been disappointing. However, a first-summer Bonaparte's Gull first found by Paul H at Creekmouth on 14th May has salvaged things somewhat.
Bonaparte's Gull Crossness, London 15th May 2017
Nice to see it at Crossness too, where it was my fourth one there. A remarkable fact given that there have only been five London records, with the first one being in May 2012. It was also good to get Dante onto his first BBRC gull species. Wouldn't put in past that boy to score London's sixth some point soon. No pressure.
1st-summer Mediterranean Gull Crossness, London 15th May 2017
Other than two 1st-summer Med Gulls at Creekmouth on 14th May (with one at Crossness the day after), I really have seen very little apart from 10 ringed gulls which included a long-staying Dorset ringed 1st-summer Great Black-backed Gull in Rotherhithe and a 1st-summer Herring Gull that has made its way down to Thames Barrier Park from Rufforth, Yorkshire via Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. And I saw a very distant Common Crane at Rainham in the Sunday evening sun just gone.

Just hoping there is still a bit of life in the spring what with these south-easterlies and warm weather.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

London spring birding with decent ducks, waders and gulls

After the excitement of last weekend, it was back to urban birding today and yesterday. And it was really enjoyable. In fairly dull conditions yesterday, I headed out with Jamie P to Crossness where we had a bit of wader action - two lovely Bar-tailed Godwits the undoubted highlight as they fed near the golf centre on the Thames foreshore, while nine Grey Plover flew from Barking Bay towards Rainham just as the last mud was being covered. A steady passage of Swallows (and a single Sand Martin) too.
Bar-tailed Godwits Crossness, London 6th May 2017
And that was that. Time to get back to the larids, and lobbing bread off Princess Alice Way, Thamesmead has become a new routine of mine. Mid morning, and within five minutes of lobbing the loaves, this German beaut turned up - as far as I'm aware, it hasn't been seen anywhere since it was seen by Dante and Jamie at Thames Barrier Park on 20th November last year (having been ringed at Grabendorfer See, Brandenberg on 6th June 2016 as a chick): -



1st-summer Caspian Gull X090 Thamesmead, London 6th May 2017
We headed out of London for a bit, and to Cliffe. Not sure why we went if I am honest, but felt like a decent move. I guess a couple of Cuckoos, a singing Nightingale and a couple of Whimbrel were birds I wouldn't see too easily in my usual birding areas. We returned after an hour or two, taking in seconds of the Caspian Gull at Thamesmead and scouring the gulls in Rotherhithe to little avail.

Today, and it was back to Thamesmead for the midday high tide. Just a first-summer Yellow-legged Gull of note there so over the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry to Thames Barrier Park, somewhere I'd not visited for a month or so. A quick scattering of bread, and after shifting position from near the barrier to the usual winter spot, I had my eyes on another German 1st-summer Caspian Gull. This time it was X319, a bird I'd seen here previously on 4th February that had also been seen at Beddington in January and prior to that in the Netherlands in November last year (having been ringed at the same site and on the same date as yesterday's Casp X090).


1st-summer Caspian Gull X319 Thames Barrier Park, London 7th May 2017
I then headed to the O2, where Jamie had scored another Casp (a new individual), but having failed to see that I had to make do with three 2nd-summer Yellow-legged Gulls.
2nd-summer Yellow-legged Gull O2 Greenwich, London 7th May 2017
A very nice way to finish off the weekend before the carnage commences once again in the morning. And I nearly forgot to say that on Wednesday evening, I had five of these (four drakes and a female) outside my flat on Greenland Dock - the first ones I have seen in Rotherhithe.
drake Red-crested Pochard Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, London 3rd May 2017

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Dirty long distance twitching for another British first

Early afternoon on Saturday, news came through of a Red-winged Blackbird found on North Ronaldsay, Orkney by Simon Davies. A first for Britain no less, which broke the serenity of what was going to be a nice long weekend of local birding combined with a wedding anniversary dinner that evening. Anyway, it was worth more than my life to bail on the latter, but by dawn the next morning (Sunday 30th April) I'd got myself to a small airfield in northern England for the usual process that I'd organised the afternoon before...

It didn't take long before news came out that the Red-winged Blackbird was still there. These days, it isn't the waiting anxiously for a phone call from someone on site to confirm as it used to be - Twitter's the way forward. After a relatively quick, thankfully uneventful flight we landed on the short gravel runway and got chauffeured to the site by those good eggs from North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. Things were on lock down, as the bird was feeding out of sight in a pretty thick iris bed. If everyone descended on the specific place, it'd have been carnage for potential breeding species so quite rightly Simon and his team were doing some damage limitation for the appreciative crowd - a controlled, sporadic walk through of the area to allow people to see the bird.

And that is exactly what happened - on three occasions, the bird flew from the iris bed, perched on a wire and then scrubbed around near some gas canisters. And then went back to the iris bed and that was that.
Red-winged Blackbird North Ronaldsay, Orkney 30th April 2017
Worst views of Red-winged Blackbird I have ever had? For sure. Most expensive Red-winged Blackbird I have ever seen? By some margin. That's the twitching game - still do it, still live for it. Happy days.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Chile part four - Torres del Paine and the Pampa Larga

Our final day in Patagonia. Far too short. But one of the places that Karen really wanted to visit while we were down here was the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Being about four hours from Punta Arenas, it was going to be a long day and a flying visit. But worth it - spectacular scenery, glaciers and hopefully a bit of birdlife thrown in too. So long as the gloomy conditions cheered up!

First stop was Laguna los Palos, a pretty desolate lagoon about 45 minutes north of Punta Arenas. It was stacked with a couple of hundred Red Shovelers and Silver Teals, along with large numbers of Yellow-billed Teal; the odd burst of colour was provided by a small group of Chilean Flamingos and a flock of Patagonian Yellow-finches in the grassland. However, in the rather dismal conditions, a quick look for Magellanic Plovers was fruitless and so we moved on north where the first of these boys - Darwin's Rhea - were by the roadside...

Heading off the main road an hour or so short of Puerto Natales, we headed east along a gravel track towards Punta Delgada which traversed steppe habitat (pampalarga) which was home to two pretty decent species - Tawny-throated Dotterel and White-bellied Seedsnipe. I'd seen the dotterel in Argentina back in 2003, but the views of a flock of 27 birds here were much better: -

While it took a bit of time and scanning, a group of three White-bellied Seedsnipe were eventually found. These high altitude breeders were probably recently in on their wintering ground here: -
And so with a couple of skunk sightings and endless Guanacos, as well as a load of Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, the other quality species I located here were a couple of Yellow Bridled Finch which were slightly reticent to come close...

After that, it was time to keep Karen happy and spend the afternoon in Torres del Paine. But that was after a quick stop in the picturesque Puerto Natales where Grey-flanked (photo below) and Dark-bellied Cinclodes showed on the seashore along with Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans.
A single Great Grebe and several Red-gartered Coots showed at range on a lake, while Andean Condors soared. In Torres del Paine itself, a pair of Spectacled Teal on a braided river channel were quality but a bit distant for photos, while an Aplomado Falcon zipped past. Infinite Guanacos (photo below) and Darwin's Rheas were an everlasting memory set to the backdrop of high peaks and glaciers... all rounded off in the evening by perhaps the best steak I've ever had (or at least the best steak I've had since Argentina!).
So that was that. A quick whistle stop tour of southernmost Chile, heading north and wanting more. The fresh air, spectacular landscapes (especially if you're a geographer like me!) and real quality birds genuinely make this one of the best and nicest places I have been fortunate to visit. Off to sweat it up north in Arica next with some different larids...

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Chile part three - Tierra del Fuego

With just a two hour ferry ride separating Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego, it seemed an obvious option to visit this mystical, barren land while I was in southern Chile. There was one major reason why I wanted to head over the Magellan Straits and it was strangely very dudey. I'd only ever seen a couple of species of penguin - Little Blue in Australia back in 2003 and Galapagos Penguin a couple of years back. Both pretty small, and being honest, relatively unimpressive. So with the prospect of a visit to a King Penguin colony, that in itself made the trip worthwhile.
Arriving at the ferry terminal in Punta Arenas on a crisp blue morning, the sea was like a millpond. Lovely for sailing, but past experience of pelagics told me it wouldn't be great for birds. But so far away from home, and with little experience in the southern oceans, there would surely be a few bits and bobs. And that there was in the two hour trip - the highlights were a single Magellanic Diving Petrel, half a dozen Southern Giant Petrels, a single Black-browed Albatross, five Wilson's Storm-petrels, good numbers of South American Terns and a few hundred Southern Fulmars complete with their whacky looking inner primary flash. There were also a couple of bits of big blubber spouting out water, which I thought were Fin Whales: -

Arriving on Tierra del Fuego, we scooted round the bay to Porvenir where a couple of White-tufted Grebes and Kelp Geese, along with several Flying Steamer Ducks, greeted us.
And then as we arrived on the outskirts of Porvenir, in lovely light, there was a really confiding flock of Dolphin Gulls. Really close views so smashed a few hundred photos before heading on out of town...




Rufous-chested Dotterels were, like the previous day, nice and inquisitive on the foreshore as were the local Chimango Caracaras: -

Brown-headed Gulls also showed really well on the foreshore in Porvenir: -
Just outside of Porvenir, as we descended into the wilds, a couple of Fire-eyed Diucons were by the roadside. Nice birds.

Stopping off at Laguna Santa Maria, all the birds present were a reminder that I was a long way from home - Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans, large flocks of Silvery Grebes (but without the hoped for Hooded), Chiloe Wigeons, Yellow-billed Teal, Red-gartered Coot and a Chilean Skua patrolled the skies. But the commonest bird on Tierra del Fuego - present along the roadside in good numbers - was the best for me. For some reason Upland Geese were really charismatic and very different from the grey geese I'm use to seeing: -
Anyway, by mid afternoon it was time for the main event and on arrival at Bahia Inutil, there was a colony of King Penguins that provided some really good value. There were about 130 birds in all, and though the colony was nice to see, the real highlight was seeing small groups walking in typical style back along the beach from their feeding forays: -




So after that experience, it was time to drive across more Upland Goose covered landscape to the ferry terminal at Bahia Azul and head back off Tierra del Fuego to the mainland at Punta Delgada. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and the only regret being it was just that - more time in this special place was needed...

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Chile part two - Punta Arenas and the extreme south

Very difficult to be asked 'where is the favourite place you have ever been to?' However, as soon as I stepped off the plane in the extreme south of Chile at Punta Arenas I kind of knew it'd be right up there. Crisp, fresh air and clear blue skies with a landscape very Shetland/Hebridean-esque. Just with a load of different birds...

First stop was a wetland area to the north of the town where a couple of screens looked over a frozen scrape. It didn't matter as the geese didn't care - Patagonia's not a place for grey geese, and like something out of childhood visits to the WWT, it was a multitude of goose colours with Upland Geese the commonest, several Ashy-headed Geese and four much rare Ruddy-headed Geese (all ringed locally): -
Ruddy-headed Goose Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
It was hard to stay here long as I had the burning desire to find the local larids. As perhaps the main reason for coming all this way south was to see a species I'd been craving for ages - Dolphin Gull. No sooner had we hit the coast, seen some gulls and hurled a couple of cookies out then they appeared. This was the precursor to a few days with this species under ridiculously good light and super close views. Though nowhere near as common as Kelp Gulls, the Dophin Gulls were relatively regular along the coast and weren't shy either - always being the most inquisitive of the southern South American gulls. I won't bore you now with all the shots, but here are a couple for tasters: -

Dolphin Gulls Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Along with a load of Kelp Gulls, easily the commonest gull here in Punta Arenas, there was a neat flock of Brown-hooded Gulls at a nice river outflow by the beach. A new gull for me anyway, so time to soak in a few of them: -



Brown-hooded Gulls Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Before scanning through them and having one of those moments where you question your mind and what you're seeing. Given that Punta Arenas and Patagonia are essentially one of the last bits of land before you hit Antarctica, I was more than surprised to stumble upon what must be one of the most lost birds I've seen, a first-winter Sabine's Gull, which will have been bred last summer in the Arctic 10,000 miles away: -

1st-winter Sabine's Gull Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
There was also a single Franklin's Gull in the flock, which was nice to see too. After having a nice dudey lunch out our hotel, we headed off to the south on the road to Fuerte Bulnes, where the coastal scenery was cracking and the air here even fresher than in Punta Arenas. There was a lot of birdlife along the coast here, with loads of Imperial Shags, Crested Ducks, Chimango Caracaras and Kelp Gulls along with a couple of really smart looking Kelp Geese (sexual dimorphism at its best!), several Rufous-chested Dotterels, Southern Caracaras and Magellanic Oystercatchers: -
Kelp Gull Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Crested Duck Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017 
Kelp Goose (male left, female right) Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Southern Caracara Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Magellanic Oystercatcher Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Rufous-chested Dotterel Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Passerine wise, it was slim pickings but Austral Blackbirds, Long-tailed Meadowlarks and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos were present.
Austral Blackbird Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
And then back in town these guys showed up just as the sun was setting: -
Dusky Dolphins Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
A really great, memorable day that was rounded off by some high quality Patagonian lamb and a good night's sleep. All in preparation for the next day...